The irony of the Obama presidency is that in less than two years it has caused a minor political transformation. This transformation will draw, for a significant number, an ideological line in the sand, a demarcation between a presidency that is moving farther to the left and a Congress that will begin to move farther to the right.
Wall Street has been climbing upward on the cynicism of anticipated political gridlock. While some assume that nearly anything government does is detrimental to the well-being of the nation, others assume government is the best solution to the nation’s problems. The reality is that both these views are overly simplistic.
The essence of politics, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, is compromise and conciliation. The Obama administration set a standard for ideological exclusion and purity, and in turn created its mirror image in the current electoral outcome. Even gubernatorial races are being interpreted as referenda on the Obama presidency.
Lost in this is that government performs vital and necessary functions, and there are limits to what either government or free markets alone can accomplish. Imagine Wall Street without regulation, or rust belt industry without environmental controls. Left to market forces, environmental damage would be devastating, perhaps irreversible. Yet overregulation and too much intrusion in the economy cause the kind of crony capitalism and wealth transfer that is the hallmark of this administration and has damaged the economic recovery.
Americans primarily are neither liberals nor conservatives; they are best defined as pragmatic moderates. Political economist Anthony Downs described the American electorate through the spatial image of a bell-shaped curve along an amorphous left-right ideological dimension. The centrist ideological distribution of the American electorate provided for stable, moderate government that avoided the ideological and dysfunctional political upheavals of European politics grounded in conflicting ideologies.
The political right has always argued that there is a large group of conservatives, a second mode, in the otherwise normal curve, sitting at the right end of this somewhat amorphous ideological continuum that stayed home because the differences between the candidates were insignificant. The conservative ideal has been to mobilize these conservatives into the electorate by running candidates that strongly represented their ideological point of view.
In 1964, the nomination of Barry Goldwater was the fulfillment of the conservative dream and a test of the bimodal variation of Downs’ single-mode political curve. And the theory was rejected just as Goldwater was.
In politics, as in physics, for every action there is a reaction. Obama’s governing from the left mobilized America to the right. The curve is shifting. Such shifts, in American politics, are usually ephemeral, and if the new Congress embraces the mirror-image ideological stridency of the current administration, it will meet in two years with the same consequences.
American elections generally are not about ideology. This one is different because of Obama’s radical style of ideological governance. An ideologically split government might appeal to the cynicism of Wall Street, but it will not be good for America. Will Obama follow Clinton, after 1994, and move closer to the center? To date, it appears that Obama is too wedded to his ideology, too negative a president, and too lacking in both pragmatism and intellect to behave as Clinton did.
In the end, America needs a new pragmatism, one where government is not mired in ideological stagnation, but where government can take us out of the current financial crisis. Much of this will require a departure from the crony capitalism of both this and the previous administration. That will mean taking the taxpayers’ money offline, and saying no to new bailouts, such as those of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It will mean both parties looking the black caucus and its liberal allies straight in the eye and saying no to wealth transfer and the cheap mortgages of which Maxine Waters and her colleagues were so enamored.
After the hoopla and hyperbole of the anti-Obama victory settle down, the nation’s problems will still be there. The problems of unemployment, declining real estate values, and the various uncertainties hanging over the investment community are not going away. Neither side has a total solution to these, but a willingness to transcend ideological rigidity coupled with a commitment to the public interest might begin to get us there.